WRDA awaits resolution of House, Senate bills
The U.S. House wrapped up its fiscal year 2016 legislative business on Sept. 28 with a 399-25 vote in favor of the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 (WRDA), a measure intended to address the needs of America’s harbors, locks, dams, flood protection and other water resources infrastructure.
Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the bill (H.R. 5303) is “fundamental to America’s competitiveness, and gets Congress back to the regular business of addressing some of our most pressing infrastructure needs.”
Shuster said that enacting a WRDA bill every two years is essential to maintaining an efficient transportation system, moving effectively and promoting economic growth throughout the country.
The House and Senate “now need to finish their work and send a final WRDA measure to the president before the end of the year,” Shuster said.
Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, said the bill utilizes reforms from the Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) of 2014, “using a transparent process driven by local stakeholders and promoting fiscal responsibility by fully offsetting costs with deauthorization of outdated projects.”
The Waterways Council Inc. (WCI) praised House passage of the legislation, which followed Senate passage of the bill on Sept. 15.
Neither the House nor Senate bills contain “an onerous provision to create a public-private partnership that could have imposed waterways tolls or lockage fees, resulting in an adverse change in the cost-sharing mechanism for the inland waterways transportation system,” WCI said. “In late 2014, commercial operators successfully increased their user fee by 45 percent, to $29 per gallon, as a way to increase investment in inland waterways lock and dam infrastructure.”
Along with the work done on the House and Senate versions of the WRDA bills before recess, lawmakers voted 72-26 in the Senate and 342-85 in the House in favor of a 10-week continuing resolution (CR) to keep the federal government operating from Oct. 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year, through Dec. 9.
The CR includes $1.1 billion in funding to respond to the Zika virus, $500 million in flood relief for Louisiana and other states, and full fiscal 2017 appropriations for military construction and veterans.
The National Waterways Conference said legislative leaders are confident that a final WRDA would be passed in the lame-duck session. However, Amy Larson, president of NWC, said the Senate and House WRDA bills have “stark policy differences.” For one thing, Larson said, the Senate version is focused on drinking-water projects typically outside the scope of a traditional WRDA. Furthermore, the $10.6 billion for the Senate bill compared with $5 billion for the House version “remains a significant hurdle.”
Among amendments approved by NWC is one offered by Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, and adopted by a voice vote. The amendment defines “work” as referenced in law, such as “any seawall, bulkhead, jetty, dike, levee, wharf, pier, and other work built by the United States.”
The Babin amendment excludes from the definition the river channel as such, whether or not dredging is necessary to maintain navigational depths, Larson said.
House passage of WRDA also won the applause of Kurt Nagle, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Port Authorities. Nagle said that “among the most important aspects of both the House and Senate versions of the legislation is that it puts WRDA back on an every-two-year cycle, avoiding a backlog of projects and adopting policy changes to make the system work more efficiently and fairly.”
Nagle urged the House and Senate to reach agreement on a final bill “as quickly as possible,” enabling the federal government to uphold its end of the partnership by authorizing “badly needed investments to waterside connections with seaports.”
NMC, TSA relax mariner credential costs
A couple weeks ago, the National Maritime Center (NMC) advised mariners whose credentials were lost or destroyed in the recent flooding in Louisiana that they could obtain duplicate credentials free of charge.
However, when the American Waterways Operators learned that mariners inquiring about the NMC advice were being told that they would have to pay for replacement credentials and that the process would take two to four weeks, AWO officials immediately contacted “senior folks” at Coast Guard headquarters and together they came to the worried mariners’ rescue.
Jennifer Carpenter, AWO’s chief operating officer, said on Sept. 13 that “they immediately understood that that was not the way to handle it.” Carpenter saw the new policy as “a very practical approach, something that the Coast Guard has the authority to do and it is just the right thing to do. You know, mariners who have suffered losses in this flooding, the last thing they need to be worried about is their ability to go to work because they lost their credentials.”
“The good news is that the Coast Guard said that with this new policy not only will the replacement credential be free, but the replacement will be expedited and they are going to make every effort to get the replacement credentials out (on) the next business day,” she said. “That is really good news. It is free and it is not going to be a long wait.”
Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that the application fee for a new Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) was lowered to $125.25 on Oct. 1. The reduction was due to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s reduction in the cost of criminal record checks by $2.75.
The TSA also advised applicants seeking a Merchant Mariner Credential to ensure that they identify their occupation as a “merchant mariner” upon enrollment, as the agency may no longer be able to share its information with the Coast Guard unless applicants do so.
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Senate panel accuses EPA, Corps of ‘running rogue’
A new majority report by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee accuses the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Army Corps of Engineers of “running rogue” in their attempt to expand their pollution prevention jurisdiction from navigable waters to “farm fields, puddles and dry land.”
In addition to releasing the report, committee chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., delivered a letter to 11 Senate democrats who, in a letter on Waters of the United States (WOTUS) nearly a year ago, told the EPA and the Corps that farmers, ranchers and others “deserve clarity and certainty” on the issue. In that letter, the EPA was warned that if clarity was not provided, the committee would have the right to support efforts to revise WOTUS.
Inhofe said case studies in the report show that the Obama administration “is already asserting federal control over land and water … even though the courts have put that rule on hold.” Expecting the Supreme Court to decide that “this agency overreach is illegal,” Inhofe said the report “should be evidence enough that it’s time for Democrats and Republicans to work together to rein in EPA and the Corps.”
The senator emphasized that over the course of the past year, 69 senators, “a veto-proof majority, have gone on the record about their grave concerns regarding the WOTUS rule.”
In his letter to the 11 senators, Inhofe called on them to “live up to their commitment and work with the committee on tailored legislation to end agency overreach.”
Towing safety panel to meet Oct. 26-27
The Towing Safety Advisory Committee (TSAC) and several subcommittees will meet Oct. 26-27 to discuss, among other things, the responsibilities of a new subcommittee looking after unmanned liquefied natural gas tank barges.
Other subcommittees will review Subchapter M implementation, inland firefighting, and articulated tug-barge and electronic charting systems.
All the meetings will be held at the Department of Transportation Headquarters Media Center in Washington, D.C. For more information, contact William J. Abernathy at (202) 372-1363.